Paul McCartney was having a pretty successful season the autumn of 1968. Now, most of the autumns that Paul McCartney has spent on this Earth in his adult years have probably felt quite successful to him, but autumn 1968 may have been special even by his standards.
In August of that year, The Beatles had two songs prepared for release as a single: “Revolution” and “Hey Jude.” The band was about to release its double album, “The Beatles” (more commonly known as the White Album), but these two songs were not going to be included. A rendition of “Revolution” appears on the album, but the group had another, a faster version, that it wanted released. “Hey Jude” and the hit single version of “Revolution” did not fit that already over-stuffed album, so the two songs were slated to be their new record label’s (Apple Records) first single.
The concept of an A-side and a B-side for a single seems quaint now in our era of digital downloads or Spotify and iTunes. It seemed quaint even then, too, as everyone knew that the two sides were equally easy or equally hard to play—anyone with functioning hands could place the record A-side-up or B-side-up as per their desires—the B-side was not “unlocked” by playing the A-side a certain number of times. Thus, plenty of B-sides became hits in their own right, and the record-buying public would school the labels in the matter of what it wanted to listen to.
The Beatles knew this, and the group played games with the idea over time and even sometimes marketed singles as having “two A-sides”; when the band is The Beatles and most of the band’s songs are A-sides anyway, this makes sense. The first released single from Apple, their record label, was not going to be treated as a gimmick like that. John Lennon wanted his composition, “Revolution,” to be the A-side, but the other three members thought otherwise. Because of The Beatles’ one-Beatle/one vote democracy, “Hey Jude” was the A-side of a single backed by the feedback-heavy version of “Revolution” that was released on August 26, 1968.
By the end of September, it was number one single in the United States where it sat until the end of November. I arrived on this planet on the 18th of that Beatles-heavy November.
The week that I was born, The Beatles not only had the number one song but also the top-grossing film. “Yellow Submarine” took over the top spot from “Head,” the cult film starring The Monkees and co-written by Jack Nicholson. Four different films topped the box office in four different weeks that November, with each one coming close to or topping three million dollars in ticket sales for the week, numbers that might not crack the top 20 for a weekend now. They were: “Ice Station Zebra,” “Head,” “Yellow Submarine,” and “Lady in Cement.” “Yellow Submarine” outdid the other three that month.
Of course, The Beatles are not in “Yellow Submarine” except for the very last section. The voices of their animated counterparts were provided by actors imitating their Liverpudlian accents, and the film studio, United Artists, was pleased with but not entirely happy about this. As far as UA was concerned, The Beatles owed one more film to the studio, but to a man the four had hated the experience of making movies; when the concept of an animated film spotlighting a handful of songs that might not have found a home in any other album was proposed, it sounded like a grand idea to the group. United Artists thought that this did not relieve The Beatles of their obligation, however, and it demanded one more film; this is how “Let It Be” came to be made.
November 1968 was Paul McCartney’s month—more than anyone else’s except mine because I was born that month—because of a couple other songs. Apple Records had started to sign artists to its roster of performers, and one, a Welsh singer who was not yet 20, became his special project. Mary Hopkin’s biggest hit briefly knocked her boss’ band’s “Hey Jude” out of number one in England but never got past number two in the United States. Even if one does not know it by name, if one has attended a wedding or a prom at any time in the last four decades one knows the song and especially her version: “Those Were the Days.”
McCartney also decided to produce a single with his favorite comedy group, the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band. (I wrote the first of several pieces about the Bonzos last year: Vivian Stanshall.) And so we have the tuneful, Beatles-esque, but utterly unique and Bonzo song, “I’m the Urban Spaceman,” written and sung by Neil Innes and produced by “Apollo C. Vermouth,” a name McCartney awarded himself because he could decide to do things like that.
Not many artists have had better months. Not even Paul McCartney.
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This first appeared around my birthday last year.
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